|Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, site of the Parkland, Florida, shooting|
When the #WalkUpNotOut hashtag briefly trended on social media during this month’s nationwide student anti-violence walkout, I observed two reactions. Those favoring this hashtag insisted that if children simply behaved more civilly toward one another, embracing differences and treating outcasts well, they mightn’t lash out violently. Opponents responded with outrage: how dare you expect children to identify and overcome differences that trained adults are too busy, short-staffed, and underfunded to address?
It took weeks for me to realize the problem with both claims: they’re both being ballyhooed by adults. And children are not simply miniature adults.
This week’s autobiographical essay by Isabelle Robinson, who briefly peer-tutored the Parkland, Florida, school shooter, hit close to home for me. Specifically, the opening anecdote where the shooter (I’ve resolved never to glorify mass shooters by repeating their names) flung objects at her, in public, unprovoked. Because something similar happened to me. And my mother said, basically, #WalkUpNotOut… and I wondered what possessed her.
Back in about 1987, standing in the crowded, anarchic space where kids from outlying neighborhoods queued for buses after school, I stood leaning against a pillar, doing literally nothing, when I felt a sudden shooting pain in my back. Wincing in pain, turning to see what happened, I saw another student standing over me with a smirk on his face. Without explanation, he’d walked up and punched me in the kidneys. From behind.
To this day I don’t know why he did this. I don’t even remember his name; my family relocated just months later. My family relocated frequently throughout my youth, because my father’s military career had him moving from station to station, approximately every two years. And because I almost always had exactly two academic years to cultivate friendships, only to see them end, I didn’t learn to take long views of relationships outside my nuclear family until I was an adult.
Therefore, when my mother told me to make friends with my bully, I believed her. I saw no reason to doubt her sincerity in telling me bullies acted with hostility because they were lonely, isolated outsiders seeking friendship themselves. She regaled me with stories of her own childhood, approaching sad-eyed waifs on the schoolyard and becoming their friends. If I simply befriended my bullies, Mom said, they wouldn’t lash out and, y’know, kidney-punch me from behind.
I don’t believe my mother had any malicious intent in spreading this message, and I don’t believe people sharing the #WalkUpNotOut hashtag do either. They all probably believe that childhood relationships organize around principles much like adult relationships. Or anyway, like how they believe adult relationships work, but we’ll return to this. They simply cannot believe that children are fundamentally different.
|Emma Gonzalez, possibly the most visible|
face of the current public movement
So, y’know, they punch one another. Sometimes that escalates.
Despite adults’ best intentions, grown-up relationships seldom work according to principles of reciprocity and respect either. The biggest jackass at the workplace often has the most “friends,” because people hope to avoid his barbs by earning his good feelings. Not only does this not work, but too often, higher-ups see this jerk with a big circle, assume he’s influential, and offer him promotions first. Don’t pretend you haven’t seen it.
And that’s just people who try befriending bullies. Too many adults don’t talk to peers who don’t share their political, religious, or social worldviews. Some sources, admittedly partisan, suggest Americans are more divided, and less likely to talk to or trust one another, than at any time since the Civil War. So we, as adults, simultaneously don’t talk to one another, and talk to the wrong people. And we expect children, children, to do better.
I tried befriending my bullies, because I believed my mother. It never ended well. I’d wind up humiliated, treated worse, sometimes even bleeding. But worst was when these bullies roped me into bullying others, and I’d go along, knowing I’d get the same or worse if I didn’t comply. I don’t know how many people alive today see me as part of their childhood problems. I can’t know, because we never stayed in one place long enough to see the long-term consequences.
Since at least Columbine, pop psychology has linked violence to lonerism. Their violence was blamed on their membership in the self-proclaimed “Trenchcoat Mafia.” But that group’s yearbook photo had ten members; unofficial reports say there may have been fourteen altogether. (Notably, neither Columbine shooter was in that photo.) Both shooters had large circles of friends, mostly comprised of people trying to avoid their bullying. We know how well that worked.
Adults scolding children to befriend outcasts not only require kids to do adult psychological interventions; they demand children, who by definition can’t see the long-term consequences of their actions, do something adults practice only irregularly, with specious results. But putting it that way is just as bad, because it demands children’s actions be measured across the span of years, something we don’t even ask of adults.
Certainly, we should educate youth to see and understand those different from themselves. Historically, this has been among the roles we expect of schools, and one important reason why integrated schools remain important. But we cannot expect kids to to the work of mental health professionals. And we cannot expect them to do better than we, as adults, do. We need to let kids be kids, and stop forcing them to think like miniature adults.